The tough part of being a young manager in Italy is that club owners treat managers like Kleenex. When the club uses you to a point, they dispose of you. That makes Eusebio Di Francesco’s career with Sassuolo more impressive, and a manager to watch.
The 47-year-old Pescara native enjoyed a 17-year career playing career. From 1997-2001 he played for Roma and won a scudetto with the Giallorossi. During his long career he made over 570 appearances, scoring 47 goals and even earned 12 caps for the Azzurri. As a player he earned praise for his positional flexibility in the midfield and his leadership skills on the pitch. He was destined for a career as a manager.
After he retired, he served in the front office for Roma and Val di Sangro in Serie C2. His first head coaching stint was with Virtus Lanciano in Lega Pro, where he lasted only 20 matches before being sacked. His next opportunity as a manager came a year later when Pescara hired him. Here he began to earn his reputation as a coach who taught progressive, positive soccer with a team willing to attack rather than sit back and defend.
After 61 matches he left Pescara to manage Lecce in Serie A. His first Serie A stint lasted fourteen matches. Management sacked him with Lecce at the bottom of the league table after 14 matches. It would be another six months before he earned his fourth head coaching opportunity with Sassuolo.
Sassuolo truly are a minnow in Italian soccer. Located in Modena, the club was an amateur side for almost half of its history. It toiled in the lower professional divisions until 2006, when it won promotion to Serie C1. Former Serie A player Massimiliano Allegri became the club’s manager in 2007 and they won promotion to Serie B the next season.
At this point, the club had to enter a field-sharing agreement with Reggiana, as its home stadium only seated 4,000. This shows just how tiny a club Sassuolo are. Regardless, they aspired to join Serie A and di Francesco was the man who would fulfill that dream.
The club frequently finished in promotion playoff spots but was eliminated. In June 2012 management hired di Francesco to take the club into Serie A. The next season, he did that by winning Serie A. Before their first Serie A season even began, Sassuolo won the TIM Trophy, the first time a club other than Milan, Inter, or Juve have won the trophy. Despite their size, the Italian soccer world looked forward to the small, attacking club participating in Serie A.
Sassuolo started slow in Serie A but eventually escaped the relegation zone. Its continued struggle that season led to di Francesco being fired on January 28, 2014 but less than two months later was rehired. From March 3 on, di Francesco has led Sassuolo to impressive feats. The Neroverdi finished above the relegation zone in 2013-2014, then finished in 7th the following season.
The past three seasons have seen incredible success for the little side. Last season, the club qualified for the Europa League – its first ever European qualification – by finishing 6th in Serie A plus Juve beating Milan in the Coppa Italia. The club advanced to the group stage of the competition but finished last in a tough group featuring Genk, Bilbao, and Rapid Wien.
Sassuolo Present and the Future
This year’s side has not reached the heights of the past few seasons. Sassuolo currently sit in 16th but the absolute wretchedness of bottom three has given them a cushion. Sassuolo are a joy to watch with their aggressive style and ability to attack. The system has made a star of Domenico Berardi, who is now being discussed as a building block for future Azzurri sides.
Larger sides are paying attention and have begun testing his commitment to the Neroverdi. AC Milan approached di Francesco to manage their club, but he dismissed the attention by saying, “I can’t work amid such confusion.” Simply keeping little Sassuolo up when larger, more historic clubs have gone down means Milan will not be the last big club to approach the former midfielder. Until then, watching him and minnow Sassuolo take on the big teams in Italy is must-see TV.
Photo credit: by Roberto Vicario Cropped by Danyele ((Original photo)) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons